Tag Archives: abuse

Rape is a race issue

[This article contains mentions of rape and sexual abuse, racism, and failure to deal with sexual violence.]

Remember the Rochdale sexual abuse case? Remember the racism in how white people reported it and commented on it? Remember the valiant efforts of some white feminists to say that race was not the issue here, but gender and class were, alongside the systematic disbelief and retraumatisation of all survivors?

Unfortunately, reality goes to show that rape is a race issue. I hope to write about this at more length at some point, but right now there’s a case in the media at the moment which shows this very well, all by itself.

Jimmy Savile would never have got away with it if he wasn’t white. And he probably wouldn’t have been nearly so successful in his career, and therefore would have had access to far fewer girls and young women.

Racial profiling (whether it’s done by the police, shop staff, or anyone else) necessarily involves two sides: being more likely to suspect/report/arrest people who aren’t white (and especially Black people), and therefore simultaneously being less likely to suspect white people.

This is even more prevalent when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. False rape accusations have been used as an important tool in shoring up white supremacy, especially in the US. But more pervasively beyond that, white patriarchy spends an awful lot of effort making it clear that rape is something that only certain marginalised men do. That those ‘other’ men – ‘psychos’, weirdos, queer men, and particularly, black and brown men – are who we need to worry about. In some ways, white working class men are also subject to this, although to a much lesser extent: one of the few images of sexual harassment that is allowed to be mentioned in public discourse is page-3-inspired builders coarsely commenting on passing women.

The necessary flipside to this is that privileged men – white men, mentally healthy men, respectable men – are put under the radar. Clean-cut desk-workers would never wolf-whistle a woman. It’s not white men who traffic women and girls. Oh, but he’s such a pillar of the community. But gang-rape is black gang problem. And even when white abusers are detected, are less likely to be dealt with properly: a black man abusing a white girl is much more likely to be seen as a real threat, whereas as minimising responses are more likely to be believed if the offender is white. Think of the effect of these allegations on his career. It must have been a miscommunication. He’s just old-fashioned, he’s doesn’t know those comments aren’t politically correct.  It was probably harmless. He’s just very friendly, that’s all.

Which makes it clear who these myths benefit. Men like Jimmy Savile – the personable, successful, respectable rapists, whose whiteness and other privileges helped them get away with it.

Not just a number: age, power and abuse

[Warning for discussion and description of abuse of intimate partners.]

I’m thinking about a longer article about women who abuse women they’re in relationships with, but it might take a while.  In the meantime, I wanted to get some thoughts that I’ve been having about age out of my system.

Age is a characteristic which affects how much power you have in society, and how much power you have in relation to any partners you might have.  It’s a bit different to several other characteristics that kyriarchy uses to allocate power, because it changes constantly.  Unlike gender, for instance, where the messages we’re given in childhood are different depending on whether adults think they’re teaching a boy or a girl, we’re all socialised as children, and the powerlessness that is enforced on children.  And most of us, hopefully, make it to old age, and the loss of power that is then enacted on us.

However, I want to talk about age differentials in between, and at the upper end of childhood, and how that can affect relationships where abuse is obvious, and where power and control are much less.  Being older than your partner contributes to your having power over them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the gap, your actual ages, how much your social circles and society values age, and what other power dynamics are going on.

Some brief bits of evidence from other people, for anyone feeling skeptical:

When professionals are trying to assess the risk of serious violence and murder in domestic abuse cases, a ten-year or more age gap, in same-gender relationships, indicates higher risk. (Found here (PDF))

This big study on teenagers’ experiences of dating abuse found that for girls with male partners, having a boyfriend even a year or two older, while it brought financial and status benefits, also significantly increased their risk of sexual and other abuse.

[I hate the work risk when talking about abuse.  It makes it sound like a storm or something uncontrollable, unaccountable.   Abusers choose partners who are younger than them because it gives them greater power over them.  That’s a better phrasing.]

So how does this work?  There’s nothing intrinsically powerful about being older.  Here are some example of how society enables this tool.

  • Via stereotypes and prejudice.  E.g., it’s easier to see young people as crazy, as flakey (unreliable), as rash, as violent.  As unwise, naive or stupid: they don’t know what’s best for themsleves, sometimes they just need some firm manipulation guidance.  They are especially clueless sexually, both about how to behave sexually, and their own sexual desires and preferences.  They’re just discovering themselves, after all.  So they need to be pressured taught about these things.
  • Via money.  Due to age-based oppression in the workplace, older people are likely to be earning more, and they’ve probably been earning for longer, so may have savings.  Financial power has huge impacts on personal relationships, especially sexual ones.
  • Via external social power.  Older people are more likely to have more powerful friends, more sources of support.  Things in their life are seen as more important because they’re older, and because their age allows them to access things coded as important: better jobs, housing, marriage, mortgage, parenthood.  They. their choices, desires and lives are seen as worthy of more respect.
  • Via internal social power.  All of these ideas are likely to have been internalised by both parties, such that they both may also believe that the older person knows what’s best for the younger, or that their desires are more important, or that they’re more worthy of respect.  These beliefs can impact hugely, changing the levels of entitlement, self-esteem, self-blame, and accountability that people bring to the relationship.
  • Via insitutions and structures.  If the people share an institution of any kind (school, university, workplace, religious organisation, etc) chances are, that instiution has a hierarchy based largely on age, or which at least reflects age.

There are probably other ways that society creates and bolsters age-based power – feel free to add comments.

So, how might this power be used in a sexual relationship?

  • I’ve already mentioned how age-power can enable sexual abuse.  The idea of the more experienced person quite coercively initiating the less experienced (usually a man initiating a woman, but there are prominent gay and lesbian versions too) is so enshrined in our cultures as a positive, sexy thing.  This can be backed up by sexual emotional abuse based on greater knowledge and experience, like “if you were really in love with me/straight/not frigid/lesbian/kinky/submissive/a woman/poly then you would want to ____”, or based on age-related entitlement, like “I’m a man of the world, you’re not adventurous enough for me.”
  • Financial and related control, such as monitoring their spending, withholding money, making them ask for money or putting them on an allowance.  More subtly, it can involve presuming that the older person’s career or education should be prioritised.
  • Isolation: ensuring that all of the couple’s friends are the friends of the older one, or at least of that age group.  [Side note: isolation can be achieved in quite subtle ways, such as kindly advising them that a certain friend/group is not a good influence on them, or saying that a certain hobby or interest annoys them or is inconvenient, or making certain things a secret so that they can’t talk about the whole relationship with their friends.]  The isolating effect of secrets is particularly useful in relationships affected by other age-related power differentials, such as an older person having an affair with a younger one, or a boss having an affair with an employee.
  • General entitlement and self-esteem: especially if the older person is bringing more money and status to the couple, they may feel that this and their age entitles them to have the final word, to contribute less in other ways, be respected more, to teach/advise the other person, to generally be in control.
  • Accusing the abused person of abuse: see the stereotypes paragraph above.  It’s easier to believe that a younger person is violent, uncontrollable etc, and actions taken by a younger person against an older person are more likely to be seen as bad, disrespectful, and not how things should be.

So that’s why it really pisses me off to see articles like this one at Autostraddle that celebrates relationships with a big age gap without mentioning the power imbalance or the potential for abuse.

Again, I’m sure that there are lots of other ways age-based power can be used – if you’ve got any ideas then do comment.  If anyone would like to share their own experience of abuse and/or shitty partners, then I promise not to approve (= publish) any comments which don’t treat those sharing with anything other than belief and respect.